Jim Mace’s first day back at school didn’t go off without a hitch.
Mace’s motorized wheelchair, a loaner, malfunctioned and his educational aide, Tyrone Walser, was forced to push him and the 260-pound rig from one class to another.
“Mom, go home and get me my other chair,” Mace groused upon debarking from the motorized lift of his family van at 7:30 a.m. last Thursday outside University High School.
It was the first of many frustrations Mace would face - and overcome - on his first day back at U-Hi since the rock climbing accident last September that left him paralyzed.
It was also the only time that Mace permitted a display of displeasure with his condition.
Walser - who will be the U-Hi senior’s arms and legs in the classroom (“My right-hand man or maybe he’s my left-hand man,” Mace quipped.) - assured him that he had been working out and that he could handle pushing Mace and his wheelchair around the school.
“There are no hills in the halls,” Walser said.
With that, Mace was off to class. Was he ready to return? His mother, Linda Mace, said yes and no.
“He was real excited to get back with his friends,” she said. “School work is another thing. What senior wants to be in school?”
After months of therapy and acclimation to his life as a quadriplegic, Mace has begun working on the four credits he needs to graduate from high school in June.
He’s being tutored at home in a world affairs class by Mike Ganey. He’s attends three classes a day at U-Hi.
He was welcomed back to school, haltingly at first, then enthusiastically by classmates and teachers.
“I was anxious to get back, but I was nervous. Cruising around, I didn’t know what the kids would say,” Mace said after his first day of school.
Mace encountered dozens of fellow students Thursday in the U-Hi hallways. Some came right up, conversing with him or giving him a hug. Others were more hesitant.
“A lot of people don’t know how to handle it,” he said. “I’m sure as (time) goes on more and more people will come up to me. They’ll get braver. I’m the kind of person who will talk to them anyway whether they want to or not.”
His teachers - Steve Llewellyn in government, Ken Van Sickle in Pacific Rim economics and Steve Lalonde in mythology - all said that while they will make special accommodations for his condition, they will treat Mace no differently from the other students.
“I don’t think he wants to be treated differently, that’s my approach,” said Van Sickle. “Like he told me, `Treat me like one of the class. You can tease me, too. I want to be treated like I was.”
Van Sickle has also taught University’s other wheelchair students - there are three others at U-Hi - so he is familiar with their needs.
“Teachers are used to having them in class,” said Van Sickle. “They may be physically handicapped. Mentally they are not.”
Llewellyn, who shares Mace’s interest in climbing, welcomed Mace and and Walser to class. He said he looks forward to involving Walser in his curriculum.
“I’ve never had an adult with me before,” Llewellyn said.
It was in Van Sickle’s class where the students, now aware of his arrival, warmed up to their returning classmate. Mace took a multiple choice pre-test, reading the questions and relaying the answer for Walser to mark down.
Mythology is the class Mace said will be his most challenging because of the amount of writing involved. Lalonde assured him that he could do an audio project and that classmates and Walser could work with him on such things as crossword puzzles.
“I was going to read my texts onto tapes thinking it would be handy,” he told Mace. “When I found out you were in my class I realized I waited too long.”
After class, it was Mace’s turn to wish a fellow student well. State champion wrestler Andy Roberts had broken a finger in practice and his season came to a premature end.
“You’ll do all right,” Mace encouraged his friend.
Then it was out one wing of the school, up the sidewalk to the foyer and down another wing to his mom’s waiting van.
“We’ll make it with no problem,” said Walser. “All his classes are pretty easily accessible.”
“He’s doing all right, he thinks,” countered Mace, “Until I decide to run a few (halls).”
In spite of his physical condition, Mace displays a warm sense of humor, an ever-present smile and indominable spirit.
“There’s no use being unhappy,” he said. “You have to live with it so might as well do it with a smile.”
The accident has caused considerable change in the Mace family’s lifestyle.
Linda Mace closed her day care business. The family sold its splitentry home because of the difficulty in getting Jim downstairs to his room. Mace’s brothers, Kevin and T.J., would help, but Jim likened the ride in his wheelchair to bumping an object down the stairs on a hand cart.
Last week, the Mace family moved in with Linda’s parents in their ranchstyle home while awaiting completing of their new handicap-accessible house.
“It’s difficult, but actually the setup is nicer,” said Linda Mace of the arrangement.
Since coming home on Dec. 7 after two and one-half months in the hospital, Mace has been undergoing physical therapy three times a week. An occupational therapist comes to the house helping him adapt to daily personal activities such as eating and brushing his teeth.
“The real rehabilitation starts when you’re out,” Mace said.
He’s susceptible to sudden increases in blood pressure from something as minor as a wrinkle in his clothing, something Walser and his friends must be aware of.
His muscles are in a permanently flexed condition called tone which can restrict his movement.
But Mace has has shown remarkable progress. He has normal feeling through his shoulders and partially into his rib cage. He can move his arms and hands enough so that if one of his brothers gets too close, Mace can playfully nudge him.
Beyond that, Mace is thankful he’s alive and ambulatory - and back in school.
“As soon as people understand I’m no different,” Mace said, “more will be apt to pal around with me.”